Writing the Celtic Tiger
With the Celtic Tiger in its death throes, lawyer Sarah Harte was torn between earning money to help her struggling entrepreneurial husband and realising her dream of becoming a writer. With The Better Half, Ciara Dwyer discovers that she has managed to do both
When Sarah Harte was a little girl, she dreamt about becoming a writer. At seven, she wrote her first story -- The Zoo Zippers. But somehow life got in the way. Instead, she went on to study law. Many years later, she knuckled down and wrote a novel -- The Better Half. On the day she was offered a publishing deal from Penguin, she took the train to Cork (where she had grown up) to tell her parents the good news. They went out for tea in Glandore. "Dad revealed that he'd kept the story," says Sarah. "I didn't know he still had it. I was really touched." Finally, the seed was sown.
The Better Half is about a couple who lived it up in Dublin during the Celtic Tiger. The husband Frank is a developer, a workaholic who is always on the phone, doing deals and who enjoys flaunting his riches in a vulgar fashion. He demands that his wife throw a surprise 50th birthday party for him, so that he can show everyone that he is still a big shot, even though his empire is crumbling.
Anita, the mother of his two children, has her face pumped up with a million cosmetic poisons. She is a yummy mummy who does morning coffee with the other non-carbohydrate-eating wives in Harvey Nichols in Dundrum after the school run. She drinks too much and goes to charity balls for Indian street kids in the Mansion House. As the rich show their concern for charity, they snort cocaine in the toilets. The boom is on the brink of going bust, and businesses and people's lives are disintegrating. It's not a pretty sight but such depravity makes great material.
The Better Half is the tale of the wife, a woman who gets so caught up in the wave of motherhood, married life and materialism that she loses touch with her core self. The novel deals with how women lose their confidence when they drop out of the workforce and how they suddenly feel redundant when their little darlings, no longer dependent on them, leave the nest.
Harte is a former solicitor. (She used to work for A&L Goodbody.) Having studied law at UCC, she then became a solicitor. She gave up work when her son Conn was five. She is married to Jay Bourke, the well-known entrepreneur, who set up an empire of businesses including bars The Globe, Odessa and The Front Lounge, restaurant Eden and Bellinter House Hotel.
Bourke has been in the news of late, as some of his businesses are in financial difficulties. Naturally, anyone reading Harte's novel might assume that it is autobiographical. But I have never met Harte before, and Bourke only fleetingly, so it could be a wild assumption -- and a wrong one.
"Firstly, it's important to state now that Frank and Anita are not us," says Harte. "Anybody who reads the book and knows Jay and I will know that the characters are not us for a million reasons. Jay is not carnal and he's not greedy, but he is definitely a hard worker. He couldn't have done what he did without working very hard. When I was a lawyer, I worked very hard, too, and a lot of my friends and acquaintances worked very hard. The Irish are hard workers." But she concedes there are certain similarities between the life around her and the book's events. Business is no longer booming.
"There's no question of it, Jay has lost businesses and he's lost money, so he's had a difficult time and I'll draw that analogy," she says. "But I'm not Anita. Obviously, Jay has had a hard time and I've been able to tap into that, but the book isn't just confined to my observations. I've tried to magnify a feeling or two that I've had and my husband has had. There are certain experiences I've been privy to and things I've seen and conversations I've overheard from peers and acquaintances. But none of my friends are in this book. I would never do that. Legally, I wouldn't do that because I know the perimeters of the law, but also morally I wouldn't ever want to say to myself, I'll write a book and I'll really shanghai some of my friends. But some of the bits in the book are obviously things I've seen."
Just as Edna O'Brien says that she didn't have to go to the moon to find some of her stories, so it is with Harte. "Yeah, I went to balls and I did socialise in those years, so it is something I painted," she says. "I hope I haven't sat in judgement. I don't think I did. I just painted what I saw. I know a lot of people in business, in that whole world, so I wouldn't have had to kill myself looking for evidence.
"I never thought we lost the run of ourselves. That's a judgement, but I remember once, it was probably 2006, Jay and I were out one night and we looked at each other and said Ireland has really changed. There was something in the character of the night, a sense in the air, a feeling -- it was the clothes people were wearing, the tempo and the feel. One can't put a finger on any one thing, but it was a feeling that felt very excessive. In the novel, I tacked on the idea of the Celtic Tiger imploding and of people losing their money and having to deal with it.
"The charity circuit, while it's still in existence, has contracted. Everyone has got pay cuts and people have lost money. People have gone bust or fled abroad."
In some ways, it may seem tedious to go through the novel and ask Harte how close the events in the novel were to her own life, but in a way these questions are simply a direct result of the writing. The Better Half is very believable. In fact, it is a bit of a shock that Harte is other than her central character. She is funny, smart, self-mocking and warm too.
Although born in Dublin, Harte grew up in Cork. She has a younger sister, Rebecca. She remembers her childhood, with her parents Niall and Kay, as blissfully happy. (Her mother now runs Farmgate, the hugely successful restaurant in Cork.) "Maybe I have idealised my childhood, but I look back and see sun-dappled summers and the beach and eating ham sandwiches with my mom and sister," she says. "I would have been good academically but I was a bit immature socially. I remember playing tip the can for years."
Harte loved the Irish language and eventually went to an all-Irish school. This was unusual, as her parents weren't Gaelgoiri, but she enjoyed the language. It was as simple as that. It was a bookish family and Harte tells me that she always read voraciously. All along she wanted to be a writer.
"I ended up being a solicitor, but it was pragmatically driven rather than a life's ambition," she says. "I suppose that having my son relatively early -- I was 26 -- I felt it behoves me to be pragmatic. After I had Conn, I did the professional exams to be a solicitor, to go to Blackhall Place. When I look back, it's funny. I thought, I'll have Conn, I'll do my legal stuff and I'll write at night. It was a ridiculous plan because the amount of hours you work as a solicitor and then having a baby as well, it means that brushing your teeth is a luxury."
She is very straight-talking and although driven, she concedes that a baby's schedule did not fit in with her plans. This was a shock to this self-confessed control freak. "You think, 'I'll be different. I'll have this little thing and I'll have everything under control.' But by gum, does this little thing teach you. They're wonderful. They're like mini explosions and they change everything about your life.
"My mom said motherhood was the making of me. Because I was so young and zany, she wondered what sort of a mother I'd make, but it focused me in a good way and gave me a structure to my life, which I love. It was good for me -- stabilising; made me organised. It softened me but I don't think you have to have children to make you soft. It changed me, but the last few years have changed me too.
"You have to live your life in phases. In the last few years, I've had the corners knocked off me, and Jay too. I don't think it's a bad thing. I'm not saying I'd wish it on myself. Finally, I understand what my mother meant when she said, 'The people who are successful in life' -- and she means that in a broad sense -- 'are the people who can navigate the downs'."
Harte met Bourke in The Kitchen nightclub in Dublin. A friend introduced them. "We just got on like a house on fire," she says. "We had lots to talk about and we had similar interests -- politics, economics and law. I think he thought, who's this bossy little thing giving it back to me?"
They married two years later, when Harte was 25. The next year, they had Conn and Bourke already had a daughter Sibeal, from another relationship. "I was never the sort of person who imagined marriage, a house with a white fence and a Labrador, but Jay and I believe in life," she says. "I used to joke with him, saying I wish I met him 10 years later, but you meet someone when you meet them and that's just it. While I am controlling and quite focused, in other ways I kind of believe that you go with it."
Why does it work? "It's very simple. I just loved him. He stimulated me and he still stimulates me. We still debate all these years later. I'm not saying we're perfect and I'd hate perfection anyway, but there's an energy there."
What is life like with him? "Jay is an entrepreneur and he took risks, and now he has to suck it up and I have to suck it up too. And that's not a complaint, and we've no right to look for sympathy and we're not deserving of any sympathy whatsoever. I'm very clear on that. Entrepreneurs take risks and they have to honour those risks. The business difficulties over the last few years have been a turning point. It's been very humbling, but I'm not saying we don't deserve everything we got because we do, but it has changed us as people."
Life goes on. No longer do they go out for dinner, but they enjoy a pint and still have each other. They will ride through this storm.
"Jay is a lateral thinker and I am a linear thinker," Harte explains. "With lateral thinkers, you don't know what's coming next. It's challenging at times and interesting, but life is never dull. I like things to be full on. That means you make a lot of mistakes, but that's fine by me. I'd rather be making mistakes than not doing things."
As Harte wrote her book, she began to doubt herself. She had no agent or book deal, and she was worried it wouldn't work out. "In the beginning, I'd think I hope this works out because I've put a lot of time into it, but then when our circumstances began to change, I felt I should be out helping Jay, that I should be out working and bringing in money to take the pressure off him because it was intensifying. I'd have mini--meltdowns because I was so worried about the book. He told me I was taking a big risk but I had to go with it. I had to stay the course and not lose my bottle."
There was a lot riding on it. No wonder her eyes fill when she talks of getting her book deal. She was easing her husband's load by bringing in some shekels and she was fulfilling her dream too. Finally, she was a fully fledged writer.
The Better Half (Penguin Ireland) by Sarah Harte, is €15.99
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